Cacio is an old central Italian word for cheese, but I didn’t know that until I looked it up later. What I wondered, as I crossed Second Avenue on a silky spring night, was whether it might mean “gift:” as in, a gift for me; the gift of a restaurant where I would have the courage to sit and dine alone on a Friday night in New York.
On any night, the East Village is chock-a-block with groups of friends and tightly clinched couples. These days, the trendiest restaurants have lines out the door and deafening crowds in the bars. But Cacio e Vino was a quieter place, just around the corner from my friend Lisa’s apartment, where I was staying. Its garage-style windows were rolled up, its tables invitingly half-outdoors. I thought I could do it.
I knew I needed to do it. I was hungry and thirsty and fresh out of mojo. I wanted to do it. But after 27 years of marriage, dining out, alone, is something I just never seem to do. Or maybe it’s something I have forgotten how to do.
Funny thing is, the week I’d just spent in New York had been all about female empowerment with a capital E. With the help of Lisa, who is president of the Women’s Media Group, I gave my first New York reading from Her Beautiful Brain at Book Culture on Columbus Avenue. Later in the week at Book Expo, I was on a panel of women entrepreneurs. I spent one evening with old friends from my all-women’s college and one with new friends, fellow authors with my all-women’s publishing company, She Writes Press. I even had a ten-second encounter at Book Expo with Julianne Moore, who was signing copies of her latest children’s book, in which I managed to thank her for her Oscar-winning performance in Still Alice and, gulp, give her assistant a signed copy of my book.
By Friday afternoon, I was ready to rest. Lisa went out to see her mom in Brooklyn. We had plans to meet up later, but Lisa called to say she needed to stay put in Brooklyn. It’s OK, I assured her. I was exhausted, and I had an early flight the next morning.
And so that is how I came to be dining alone on a Friday night in New York.
You must do this, I told myself. It’s too beautiful an evening to get take-out and hide in the apartment.
I walked in to Cacio e Vino. The waiter offered me a choice of tables. I chose to look out on the street instead of hiding along the wall. He brought water and bread with fragrant oil. I ordered a glass of wine and a plate of pasta with zucchini, mint and goat cheese. Mint! Why not?
I didn’t have a book with me and I didn’t want to stare at my phone, so I pulled out a pen and a few note cards I’d bought. But for a long while, I simply sat and sipped and ate slowly, gazing out at the soft lights along the avenue, watching the New Yorkers walk by.
A young couple, oblivious to all but each other, stood outside Cacio e Vino for several minutes. Eventually, they came in, which made me happy, because I knew they’d love it. And because the sight of me, a solo diner so quaint as to have note cards and a pen on the table, had not scared them off.
It’s strange now to try to articulate the reasons why I might not have sat down and enjoyed that solo meal. Was it that I did not want to be looked at and pitied? Was I afraid someone—a man, most likely—would spoil my solitude by trying to strike up a conversation? This is much less likely to happen to me now, in my fifties, than it once was, and maybe that bothered me, in some illogical way. Was it the money? Did it feel too indulgent, spending restaurant dollars on me, alone? But here’s the real question: would a man ever, ever go through these mental hurdles before he took a seat at a restaurant table for one?
What’s odd is that sometimes I secretly daydream about dining alone. When I’m at a restaurant with other people, I have thoughts like: oh, that small plate would be the perfect thing to eat alone. And yet back in Seattle, if an evening comes along when I could actually do such a thing, I never do. But maybe now I will. Because here’s what I learned, last Friday night in New York: after a week of wall-to-wall empowerment, it was wonderful to be alone, and taken care of by a good waiter. As if I deserved it.